Sunday 25th May, 2008

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PM steals thunder

THE Prime Minister on Friday, in announcing the establishment of a commission of enquiry into, among other things, the procurement practices and methods of operation of Udecott, said he did so because it was the first time someone had made a “clear and specific allegation” that could form the basis for a commission of enquiry (COE).

He was speaking of the allegations by MP Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj made that very afternoon that in-laws of Calder Hart and his wife were beneficiaries of a $368 million contract.

As a consequence of the allegations, the Prime Minister said: “I am authorised by the Government to announce” the establishment of the COE.

The timing of his announcement around 7 o’clock on Friday night raises several questions, both of good governance and the respect/or lack thereof that the PM shows to his ministers.

The whole debate emanated from a motion by the Government for the formation of a Joint Select Committee (JSC) with a mandate to enquire into the operations of Udecott.

Powerful contribution

The Leader of Government Business, Minister Colm Imbert, introduced the motion and gave his reasons for supporting it.

He waxed warm about the “mischief” in the media about the JSC and Udecott.

Then came Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj and his hour-long presentation, interrupted by a statement by Minister of Education Esther Le Gendre and the tea break.

Mr Maharaj’s contribution was no doubt powerful and persuasive. He spoke of private investigations he had had done in Malaysia on certain firms that originated in that country that had been awarded contracts—or at least one significant contract—by Udecott.

He spoke of the perception of bias in the minds of the public of a JSC made up of members of Parliament looking into the operations of a state company.

The PM interrupted to enquire: was he saying the JSCs provided for in the Constitution to look into the operations of ministries and state enterprises were ineffective/perceived as biased?

Mr Maharaj was not to be deterred. Those were general kind of enquiries, whereas here you were dealing with specific allegations of a former minister of housing in the current government.

Mr Maharaj concluded his presentation well after 5 pm. Then came the Attorney General, who spoke for an hour or so.

Mrs Annisette-George made a case for the appointment of a JSC rather than a COE.

She spoke about the powers the JSC would have, but her focus was really on the cost—how expensive a COE would be.

Presumably, the cost of a JSC would be nil, since MPs sitting on it would do so without further compensation, and the Parliament staff would provide the administrative and secretarial services.

Up to this point, the Government’s position was certain. It was unequivocal. After all, they had brought the motion.

They had had the opportunity to caucus during the tea break, but there had been no softening of their position, as evidenced by the AG’s contribution.

Then Mr Manning got up to speak (out of turn after the AG, but the Opposition gave way).

He did so for over an hour, at the end of which he announced that the Government was persuaded to appoint a COE. He announced detailed terms of reference and the name of the Chairman.

It is all well and good for the PM to say he was “authorised” by his government to announce the formation of the COE, but could he have been?

Was this not a unilateral decision and not one collectively made by Cabinet? Indeed, that would have been impossible, given the sequence of events.

Just minutes before, you had a fighting display by a senior member of the Cabinet arguing for the JSC, rather than a COE.

Then in one fell swoop the PM undermined all of the arguments of his AG. What had changed after the AG spoke? Nothing.

Mr Maharaj had completed his presentation and made his revelations before that. The Government also knew before they came to the Parliament that day the position of the Opposition and of the possibility that the Independent Senators would not participate in the JSC.

No chance to talk

Yet, with no opportunity to speak with members of his Cabinet, the PM was able to say he was authorised by his government to announce the appointment of a COE.

It could not be that the AG and other PNM ministers knew of the PM’s intention, and went ahead with their presentations arguing against it.

Furthermore, if the PM had just been finally persuaded that to have a COE, how was it that he had the 12 terms of reference ready and a chairman named to announce to the nation in the Parliament?

Who drafted the terms of reference? It was not something, given the detailed and technical references to procurement practices, that could have been thought of at the spur of the moment.

One would have thought the Government’s legal adviser, the AG, should have been the person to draft/finalise the terms of reference of any COE the Government is to establish.

It is evident, to me at least, that the PM came to Parliament on Friday with the settled intention to announce the appointment of a COE.

He would have consulted with Mr Gordon Deane beforehand as to his availability to head the COE. He would have had the terms of reference drawn up.

These he kept in his proverbial back pocket ready to spring on the Opposition as he did, effectively stealing their thunder.

The PM may think he has outmanoeuvred his political opponents and in the process secured public goodwill in agreeing to a COE.

What he appears not to have considered is the fallout in so obviously undermining members of his Cabinet and demonstrating he believes he is the only one that matters.

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